Ah, Wilderness!

The subtitles of the books by Bill McKibben and Nathaniel Tripp proclaim their chief concerns: McKibben celebrates a landscape running from Vermont to upstate New York—he is hopeful about efforts being made to preserve it—while Tripp records his struggle to protect the upper Connecticut River valley from abuse by electric companies and property developers. Both writers came from cities and chose to live in the country and to write about their experience there. They both deplore what McKibben calls the irresponsible “hyperindividualism of our time”; they are sympathetic to environmental causes but acutely aware of the dogmatic naiveté the converts to the environmentalism of the 1960s sometimes exhibited.

Both also recognize that even the best-considered reform efforts often fail. If that seems bound to happen, some people will share the despairing visions of environmental ruin Tripp describes at the end of his book. Others will try to find better reforms, as McKibben does with a stubborn cheerfulness, despite all the ravages to the environment by human beings that he observes. Hard evidence may be less significant than inborn temperament in determining which attitude people take. Both books are eloquent in describing the different kinds of damage being done to the landscape and both are perceptive about what can be done about it. Short, elegant, and engagingly personal, they both deserve to be read in an afternoon and thought about long afterward.

McKibben’s walk began on Robert Frost’s land in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where he now lives most of the year; it ended at the house he used to live in, some two hundred miles away, in New York’s Adirondack wilderness, where he still owns 130 acres of woodland. He climbed to a lookout peak in the Green Mountains and walked through the farmland of the Lake Champlain valley; he crossed the lake in a rowboat and made his way through New York’s mountainous Adirondack wilderness.

From the start, McKibben was convinced that the land he was about to traverse was

one of the world’s few great regions, a place more complete, and more full of future promise, than any other in the American atlas.

This region (Adimont? The Verandacks?) includes the fertile farms and small woodlots…in the Champlain Valley, where a new generation of settlers is trying to figure out new ways to responsibly inhabit the land…. And across the lake it is made whole by the matchless eastern wilderness of the Adirondacks, the largest park in the lower forty-eight, 6 million acres, bigger than Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yo-semite combined. At the risk of hyperbole and chauvinism, let me state it plainly: in my experience, the world contains no finer blend of soil and rock and water and forest…. And no place where the essential human skills—cooperation, husbandry, restraint—offer more possibility for competent and graceful inhabitation, for working out the answers to the questions that the planet is posing in this age of ecological pinch and …

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